“Literary” is hardly a rare adjective, particularly in the realm of the singer-songwriter, but Toronto’s Justin Rutledge seems to wear that particular descriptor on his sleeve more than most. His history as an English major and literary journal editor is well-documented, and his lyrics, nearly always possessed of a poet’s penchant for concision and a novelist’s eye for character, would belie that fact regardless.
Not that Rutledge does anything to dispel the image: word on the street is he’s working on a new album based on characters from Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, to say nothing of his latest album, named after and inspired by a collection of Guy Vanderhaege short stories. The key to both that collection and Rutledge’s Man Descending is the line from which they take their name: “A man descending is propelled by inertia; the only initiative left him is whether or not he decides to enjoy the passing scene.”
There is more than a note of fatalism in such a sentiment, though it wouldn’t be right at all to think of it as despairing: like the free-falling man, on a broad though very meaningful level, we are all inescapably fated for a certain end. If it’s a resignation, it’s a resignation to life’s beauty, an exhortation to consider the ultimate worthiness of our trip to the inevitable.
This kind of sentiment pops up most directly on “This Too Shall Pass”, the album’s third song. In his breathy, delicate vocals, Rutledge takes stock of the world around him — the northern sky, a dark night of the soul, a failing relationship and one still in the blissful thralls of all-encompassing love — and wills it all away with the easy, detached, eponymous refrain. The song’s beauty comes from its breadth. Though it starts with a lament (“When your eyes are sick with wonder / And your heart is in a cast”) this isn’t just a comfort for someone struggling through bad times; his last verse describes a love that the more romantic might call eternal, but which Rutledge recognizes as ultimately transient. In the line, “We’ve figured out how to make a good thing last / this too shall pass”, Rutledge reveals his seeming distance as celebratory appreciation, a recognition that impermanence only heightens experience.
Though few of the songs get quite as emotionally invested, this appreciation of the finite permeates the album, produced in Rutledge’s straightforward, soft take on Americana. In particular, he employs the rootsy tendency to root himself in a place: much of the appreciation of life throughout Man Descending takes the form of physical description. On “San Sebastien”, one of many songs that name-checks a specific place (“Alberta Breeze”, “Waterloo”, “Greenwich Time”) he sings lovingly of “Soapstone / Slate and marble / On the terrace / Where we dined”, a bedrock for the song’s narrator to lay his heart in. Even the lazily mournful “Everyone’s In Love” uses mountains, seas, and cities to lament Rutledge’s fading love for a girl who’s not what she seems.
And though Rutledge is very capable at setting a scene, that particular traditional tic does point to one of his more important drawbacks: he’s far too willing to soak himself in the trappings of standard singer/songwriter tropes. Man Descending marks his third straight album of pretty but unambitious Americana. His ability is evident, but this is still more a genre exercise than a work of art, a handicap that can start to suck some of the feeling out of his songs, especially on repeated listens.
Rutledge’s strengths are evident, but he’s reaching the point in his development where he needs to start synthesizing them into something more ambitious. The world will never have a surfeit of people telling us to appreciate life as it passes by, but Rutledge could do more to give us something that makes it worth appreciating.